Much of the commentary around Windows 8 recently has rightfully centered on its slow start in the market and the abysmal fourth quarter results in which hardware makers sold fewer PCs year-over-year for the first time in half a decade. But at some point, we need to look at the bigger picture, which isn’t nearly so negative.
And it goes like this. By embracing technologies that actually make sense -- multi-touch, ultra-mobile hardware form factors, and cloud computing -- Windows 8 is a change agent, one that will irretrievably change the PC industry forever and for the better. In fact, it’s already happening.
Now, before you Windows 8 haters race to respond to that little missive, give me a moment to explain.
First of all, I’ve been pretty upfront all along that Windows 8 is in fact a mess, a glorious mess, as I called it back in August in "Start: The Windows 8 Era Begins." And the OS’s detractors are quick to point out some fairly obvious issues with Windows 8, including that its “touch-first” user interface is by extension deprecating classic control interfaces such as mouse and keyboard, with large, childish buttons that are most easily tapped by those holding touchscreen devices. Fair enough.
But the debate about Windows 8 should also include a discussion of the very important and positive changes that Microsoft has wrought in this system, as well as how those changes position both Microsoft and its users for the future.
And by users, I mean all users -- not just “consumers,” but also business users, people who need to get work done. And with a nod to the fact that many consumers are also business users and vice versa, I’d like to explain via some simple and real-world examples over the course of a single day why the design of Windows 8 does in fact make a ton of sense.
Case in point: Sunday afternoon. Football day. I’m visiting with friends to watch the Patriots face off against a playoff contender, but I have a bit of work to do. So I bring along Microsoft’s Surface with Windows RT because it’s small and light and easy to carry. But it’s never been to my friend’s home yet, and I’m not exactly eager to go through the rigmarole that generally accompanies my request for the Wi-Fi password.
Except for one thing: Because I had, in fact, connected to this Wi-Fi network previously -- months ago, actually -- using a different computer, I was connected immediately with the new device. That’s because one of the many useful items that Windows 8 syncs is Wi-Fi network connections. So even though this was the first time it had seen this network, it was like they were old buddies.
Likewise, although I wasn’t about to sit there and type away while I watched football with friends, one thing I did want to keep track of was the comments on my blog. These require me to read each one and then, usually, approve them by tapping a checkbox and then a button on a web form. This was a perfect use for the Surface: I just detached the Type Keyboard Cover I had brought along and used the Surface in its native tablet form, tapping out the simple commands with my finger. It wasn’t just workable, it was in many ways easier than the way I usually do it on my tower PC at home, using keyboard and mouse.
I also used the Surface to read though an article I had been writing previously at home, making small edits here and there in Microsoft Word. I use SkyDrive to store these articles, but it just as easily could have been SharePoint Online, which works similarly. Returning home after the game, I sat down at a table, opened up my traditional, non-touch-capable Ultrabook and got back to work on the same document; the changes had been silently and quickly synced to the cloud, and the document I opened -- again, in SkyDrive -- was the same one I had previously edited on the Surface. It was a seamless, sensible handoff, so subtle I almost forgot to stop and appreciate that it had even happened.
These activities aren’t exactly life-bending changes taken one by one. They’re instead just small and useful improvements over the way I used to do things. But when you couple these niceties with the improvements we’re now seeing in portable computer form factors, especially in hybrid devices like the Surface and other Windows-based tablets, and with more pervasive broadband connectivity and excellent cloud-based services, it represents a new model for personal computing. This is a model where the hardware is smaller, lighter, and perhaps even less powerful, with less onboard storage, less RAM, and a more power-efficient processor. It’s a model where data is centralized in a cloud, whether it’s public or private, and not on the storage of a single PC or device. And it’s a model where users with a single account, be it at work or at home, can access everything that’s important to them without juggling multiple sign-ins.
Things will always get better, yes. Microsoft has plans to update Windows 8 over the next year to satisfy some complaints and fix some functional holes. Intel and other hardware makers will improve the chipsets that run the PCs and devices we use, making them more efficient, thinner, and lighter than ever. The transition to the cloud is just that, a transition, something that won’t happen overnight for many.
But it’s happening, and it has happened already for those lucky millions who’ve already upgraded to Windows 8, especially if they took the plunge on new types of devices as well. This evolution -- really, revolution – isn’t a theory. It’s real, and that’s a truth that Windows 8 detractors are going to have trouble overcoming, whatever their motives.
You might also want to check out Jason Bovberg's "20 Windows 8 Devices that Wowed the Crowds at CES."